Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space

Seeing the Better City: How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space

by Charles R. Wolfe


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Finalist for a 2018 United Kingdom National Urban Design Award 
• A 2017 KUOW Public Radio 2017 End-of-Year Book Choice

In order to understand and improve cities today, personal observation remains as important as ever.  While big data, digital mapping, and simulated cityscapes are valuable tools for understanding urban space, using them without on-the-ground, human impressions risks creating places that do not reflect authentic local context. Seeing the Better City brings our attention back to the real world right in front of us, focusing it once more on the sights, sounds, and experiences of place in order to craft policies, plans, and regulations to shape better urban environments.

Through clear prose and vibrant photographs, Charles Wolfe shows those who experience cities how they might catalog the influences of urban form, neighborhood dynamics, public transportation, and myriad other basic city elements that impact their daily lives. He then shares insights into how they can use those observations to contribute to better planning and design decisions. Wolfe calls this the “urban diary” approach, and highlights how the perspective of the observer is key to understanding the dynamics of urban space. He concludes by offering contemporary examples and guidance on how to use carefully recorded and organized observations as a tool to create change in urban planning conversations and practice.

From city-dwellers to elected officials involved in local planning and design issues, this book is an invaluable tool for constructive, creative discourse about improving urban space.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781610917742
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 02/02/2017
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Charles R. Wolfe provides a unique perspective about cities as both a long time writer about urbanism worldwide and as an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law. He is also an Affiliate Associate Professor in the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington, where he teaches land-use law at the graduate level. Wolfe is an avid traveler, photographer, and writer, and contributes regularly on urban development topics for several publications including CityLab, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post,,, and He blogs at

Read an Excerpt

Seeing the Better City

How to Explore, Observe, and Improve Urban Space

By Charles R. Wolfe


Copyright © 2016 Charles R. Wolfe
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-774-2



Although clarity or legibility is by no means the only important property of a beautiful city, it is of special importance when considering environments at the urban scale of size, time, and complexity. To understand this, we must consider not just the city as a thing itself, but the city as being perceived by its inhabitants.


The Image of the City

It is possible for an inquisitive individual to take a hard look at ongoing change and then attempt to influence policy based on what they see. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Briana Outlaw, a landscape architecture student working as an urban-design intern, provided input to neighborhood redevelopment and affordable housing planning efforts by noticing cultural attributes of particular communities, and then suggesting that a sense of ownership in city planning efforts would be more likely if the city took a harder look as well.

Outlaw argued that if improvements were made consistent with observations of how space is used — especially roads, sidewalks, and old retail hubs — then reinvestment from within that avoids gentrification might be more likely. She described the tendency of the African American community to use roads as gathering places for community events, and asked why initial planning efforts used only traditional street and sidewalk standards. Outlaw presented her work in a study that included a paper and presentation based on her interviews, the meetings she had attended, and her observations around the city's College Park neighborhood.

Other examples are less grounded in looking at existing conditions, and they tend to emphasize the sensational. In the summer of 2015, Danny Westneat, a Seattle Times columnist, described a leaked copy of a mayoral Housing and Livability Task Force Agenda (HALA) report that contained a series of recommendations about approaches to affordable housing types. Suggested modifications to specific single-family zoned areas included expanded opportunities for "duplexes," "triplexes," mother-in-law apartments, and detached accessory dwelling units. Westneat led a charge based on words alone; he suggested that the mayor's report would be doing away with single-family zoning at the expense of these more-affordable options, and before the city issued the report, these recommendations were taken off of the table.

I am convinced that if the HALA report had contained residents' photographs of what many single-family neighborhoods already looked like, this debate about alternative housing types would have been different. To some of Seattle's mainstream media, images such as what can be seen in figure 1.1 — depicting a long-standing small apartment building in my Seattle residential neighborhood — were entirely forgotten.

Authentic human reflection should not be shortchanged by pundits' voices and augmented realities (such as maps, depictions, and overlays) that come from observers unfamiliar with the nuances of a community. As Brianna Outlaw showed in Raleigh, all of us, not just pundits, have a stake in urban change, and we should find ways to express our perceptions. Rather than contributing to the online comment stream generated by news articles, why not rise above journalistic characterizations of urban change by telling our more direct and compelling stories? As I explain in chapters 2 and 5, even Facebook, Google Plus, and certain readily available smartphone apps such as Instagram offer simple, exploratory opportunities to express our individual urban observations.

The Urban Diary Approach

One way of establishing context and providing meaning is through urban diaries. The urban diary is a method of observing and inventorying the essence of a place, describing a city dweller's conception of his or her urban surroundings, and establishing fundamental features worth preserving, replicating, or enhancing as the city evolves.

The premise of an urban diary is simple: cities are primary locations for human interaction and overlap with built environment features, such as buildings, streets, squares, and engineered parks or landscapes. The best way to experience and understand urban energy is to immerse yourself in these urban surroundings — and, in the process, record what you experience. Hence, these diaries are an important ongoing source of documentation and understanding, which can add complexity based on the senses and emotions involved. By now, it should come as no surprise that my urban diary has always been visual and, accordingly, photo-centric. However, urban diaries can take many forms: examples include a notebook or scrapbook in a binder, or a digital file displayed on a screen. Urban diaries can feature either narrative or figures (such as diagrams, sketches, or paintings), and like the excerpts in this book, they might capture actual events or record internalized memories or intuitions. They can include explanations of local history, culture, and climate, whether nearby or overseas, and note instances of what I have termed "urbanism without effort" (those latent, basic aspects of city life that occur without intervention or prompting).

An initial question about an urban diary is the locus of observation. Is the purpose of the tool to learn how to describe everyday surroundings, or to go elsewhere and decide what to illustrate for those back home who may not have seen other examples? I have found that the answer is yes to both questions. Is an urban diary necessarily nostalgic, a way to document the supposed lost soul of space or place? I would say no, but I suspect many who are inclined to oppose changing what is familiar would disagree.

No matter the purpose of the diary and the sensory information recorded there, it is necessary to learn how to observe, which is not unlike learning to play a musical instrument. After mastering observation skills, some diarists may prefer close documentation of immediately accessible environments. For others, it may be just as important, or even more, to bring home lessons from afar.

In Urbanism Without Effort, I argued for returning to the "first principles of urbanism" in order to move forward with compelling, workable solutions that revert to a more naturally occurring relationship between people and their surroundings. Like other authors and photographers, I have often referenced essential characteristics of the urban setting, such as corners and other sit-able places in the context of the "sit-able city"); such crossroads — whether intentional or inadvertent — are fundamental physical and social focal points of human interaction with the city. The idea of "sit-ability" compelled several follow-up articles by others, perhaps because (as discussed further in chapter 3) these examples of convergence points — corners and sit-able places — offer challenges and opportunities worthy of study and contemplation, and as such are suitable initial vantage points for an urban diary.

The goal is, to quote Jan Gehl and Birgitte Svarre, "not to recreate pre-modern cities," but to determine first what comes naturally — what could be considered readily observable, indigenous facets of urban settlements — and depict such first principles as a compelling documentary of fine-grained, on-the-ground experience. The degree to which livability derives from cultural tradition is somewhat variable, but such organic urban development is readily discernable, independent of government intervention, policy, or plan.

I introduced the "urban diary" tool for urban observation in order to rediscover fundamental people–place relationships, and also because twenty-first-century issues deserve a holistic, experiential point of view. I suggested that readers, regardless of their backgrounds, can and should assemble urban diaries to help in the search for the basic patterns they notice in their day-to-day urban experiences, observed precedents, and desired social and physical outcomes. We need more purposeful flâneurs, direct observers distinct from "public life studies," mindful of cutting across the objective and subjective cities–observers who can articulate how they see the city change.

Figure 1.2 shows the power of pictures to capture innate urban knowledge. The urban drummer is savvy about where and how to place himself in a way that draws attention and attracts donations from pedestrians at the corner convergence point. City dwellers know the stages, windows, and observation points of urban life — the entry points to everything from transportation modes to safety at night. This book takes our urban intuition even further, illustrating how urban diaries can suggest best practices for varied places of comfort, scale, and safety, with design and regulation provided in the public interest. Inclusive, observation-based approaches must accompany the printed word as authentic alternatives to the popular litany of buzzwords and trends.

Prominent forbears precede any foray into urban observation, and, along the way, I recommend several references. Jane Jacobs's simple allusion to urban immersion and participation may be the most helpful. Her lucid prose in The Death and Life of Great American Cities frames the question of the role of "Illustrations" in any observation quest. Still, Jacobs's book, ironically, included none, and, as Gehl and Svarre have also stressed, she noted simply that "the Scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. ... Please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well listen, linger, and think closely about what you see." This often-overlooked passage is a major point of departure for Seeing the Better City.

Such snapshots of the interaction of people and places are what my father had in mind when he composed sketches and took photographs — what I like to term "urban mirrors." We can express these urban mirrors practically as well, in isolating the most proper vantage points to survey best and worse about city life. These mirrors show where the public and private realms intersect, frame the quality of the urban experience, and — most importantly — define the following fundamental principles and questions surrounding city dwellers' urban experiences:

1. The boundaries of the built and natural environments inevitably ebb and flow.

2. Public and private spaces either separate and overlap with vitality, or segregate and deaden the experience of place.

3. Movement and settlement (land use and transportation) blend continuously. How can travel between origin and destination prove to be interesting, safe, and relatively efficient?

4. What is the optimal adaptive reuse of the preexisting built environment, with a balance of market needs with age-value considerations?

5. Traditional urban ways of life are returning; how do we walk, employ wheeled vehicles sensibly and safely with mixed modes side by side, share resources, and assure visual variety and a range of place-based uses?

6. How do we achieve comfortable and safe communities and neighborhoods, with related collaboration and protection (where necessary), without significant government intervention?

I arrived at the phrase "urban mirror" after seeing a group of men in Matera, Italy, likely on break from work, watching street life pass in front of them. Later, I read Walter Benjamin vs explanation of how Paris has perpetually offered the mirrors of observation symbolic of all cities "in a thousand eyes, a thousand lenses" focused on sky, atmosphere, neon, boulevards, men, women, and the Seine: "Mirrors are the spiritual element of this city, its insignia, in which the emblems of all the schools of poets have always inscribed themselves." Benjamin's observations underscore the role of the subjective and emotional in our expectations of the city. In today's world, the vantage points that we choose for watching others are often the same places that we use to reflect privately, communicate with others in real time over food or drink, or communicate electronically with a cell phone, tablet, or laptop in hand.

Attention to these fundamentals allows us a personal return to the more organic city we have lost, which we must understand when we examine what bonds us to place today. As Joseph Rykwert explains in The Seduction of Place, these fundamentals still underlie the modern city. Rykwert describes a constant interaction of planned and unplanned efforts of citizens, officials, and institutions. These efforts combine to morph the city over time, as globalization produces more and more of the random contrasts of vernacular building forms and more uniform, commercially driven building features.

Jonathan Raban makes the point even more dramatically in Soft City, his book-long meditation on the contrast between the tangible and the internal city — the built environment that we see and the emotions we feel. Similarly, in his famous essay "The Discovery of the Street," J. B. Jackson evokes the first-person perception of the medieval citizen passing between buildings along familiar routes. Jackson issues a laudable challenge to the post-freeway world — to remember the importance of the first-person-based, organic landscape of neighborhoods, towers, and spires that was lost before we were born.

The Process of Sensing the City: "Place-Decoding"

I have previously discussed why encouraging people to sense and, in particular, to see everyday city life deserves a high priority in policies, plans, and project-specific, pro forma spreadsheets developed by and for our political leaders, planners, designers, and real estate professionals. Better cities will not come from a directed "see this" or "sense that" mindset. Rather, better cities are more likely to result if we first learn how to sense the city, understand which urban diary tools (such as photography) we should use, and then critically review or "decode" how people interact with urban space in their local contexts.

In-person observation (and later critical review through photographs) of this relation of people to their urban environments is something we can easily call "place-decoding" — looking at urban spaces for embedded and recurring patterns of how people have lived in a place for years, and sometimes even centuries. In my opinion, reviewing and understanding these patterns are the necessary prerequisites to developing future-directed placemaking principles. My photos, as interspersed throughout this book, have that basis in common.

For me, practicing place-decoding is often easier in parts of the world where physical artifacts show by-products of human settlement over extended periods of time, and cities can serve as "classrooms" teaching us how to realize our sensations and experiences. While Seattle has been central to constructing the urban diary model, and Australia another influence because of its indigenous roots and dynamic cities, I have focused especially on France to practice my efforts to sense and understand the relation of people to where they live.

As The New York Times reporter Roger Cohen recently speculated about France's current struggle with modernity, "Nowhere else is the particularity of place and the singularity of a person's attachment to it more important." Cohen aptly summarizes the French people–place dynamic and the relative ease of applying the urban diary approach to French cities and towns. In my opinion, there is nowhere better to see the Old World basis for the role of urban places and how they define who we are in the urban context. Beyond Paris, in the narrow streets and pass-through places of France's Old World city cores, latent answers to urban riddles await our quizzical view.

As the preface and introduction have emphasized, sensing — including seeing — the city is a personal experience owned by each person, whether resident or visitor. From a legal perspective, it is tantamount to an urban property right that transcends public and private domains. Our right to see, hear, touch, and smell the city is our affordable lease, easement or license that allows us to cross space and time and the organic forces of growth or decline.

But sensing the city is often manipulated or distracted by other forces, such as intentional design by someone else. Beyond decoding messages for future-directed planning and placemaking, we should understand encounters with the directed "see this" or "sense that" mindset (noted above) that occur in the urban experiential adventure.

Observing a place, photographing it, and then decoding the photographs are helpful supplements to verbal descriptions of improved urban space. These visual supplements inform goals such as increased public transit or bicycle use with a more holistic, experiential point of view, and they enhance our ability to sense the city and its internal people–place interactions, as well as to understand where manipulations or distractions occur. Additional apps, tools, and activities are helpful measures; I also suggest more "how-to's," such as community classes, meet-ups, school curricula, trainings, and, finally, sensitizing public officials and loan officers to the underlying human perceptions that influence real estate value.


Excerpted from Seeing the Better City by Charles R. Wolfe. Copyright © 2016 Charles R. Wolfe. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Why Urban Observation Matters and Tools for Seeing the Better City

Chapter 1: How to See City Basics and Universtal Patterns
Chapter 2: Observation Approaches
Chapter 3: Seeing the City through Urban Diaries
Chapter 4: Envisioning our Personal Cities
Chapter 5: From Urban Diaries to Policies, Plans, and Politics

Conclusion: What the Better City Can Be

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